Jazz and the blues are genres of rebellion — they stray away from the strict confines of classical time signatures, swaying this way and that, with passionate tunes coming from deep within.

So perhaps it only makes sense that it was the blues was a place that would embrace Black women like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Gladys Bentley could not only be unapologetically themselves for who they were on the outside, but also as women who loved women.

“It’s pretty exceptional in these spaces at this time because … even if we’re in the north, it’s still the Jim Crow era, but Prohibition does sort of loosening these taboos a little bit and experimentation a little bit more,” said Dr. Cookie Woolner, an associate professor of history at the University of Memphis who focuses on women’s and queer history.

In 1928’s “Prove It on Me Blues,” Rainey sang, “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.” Smith was known to have a gaggle of female backup dancers and allegedly yelled at her girlfriend one night, “I got 12 women on this show and I can have one every night if I want it!” Bentley would don a tuxedo, top hat and cane and openly flirt with white women in the audience.

It was a perfect storm of cultural and political renaissance that made this underground scene possible — the Great Migration sent six million Black people moving out of the South for opportunities and equality, and with Prohibition in full swing, rebellion was celebrated.

While LGBT people have been around since the beginning of time, how we categorize and label ourselves has changed. For example, Bentley may have been seen as a woman who dressed in men’s clothing, but others believe that by modern standards she may have been a trans man. In her wedding announcement to a man and in her obituary, she was referred to as a cabaret singer and male impersonator.

Regardless of the labels, though, these women were still taking risks with their song lyrics, dancing, and open queerness — being “out of the closet” was not something that would exist for many decades, even in more liberal entertainment circles.

“It’s seen as deviant, it’s seen as immoral, it’s seen as criminal,” Woolner said of queerness in the era. “But at the same time, when we talk about the ‘20s we talk about everybody is enjoying breaking the rules, going to speakeasies, interracial or queer dating, and meeting people from different walks of life.”

Woolner said that due to the nature of touring, these performers were afforded privacy and their own entourage traveling from one gig to the next. For the most part, though, many Black women felt safer hosting private parties at home, sometimes called “red parties” or “buffet flats.” Here, raucous parties included dancing, gambling, drugs, sex shows, and any vice they couldn’t enjoy outside of the confines of their home.

Smith sang about buffet flats in her song “Soft Pedal Blues:” “There's a lady in our neighborhood who runs a buffet flat and when she gives a party, she knows just what she's at. She gives a dance every Friday night that was to last 'till 1.”

As history has shown over and over again, a rise in progressiveness follows a wave of conservatism. After the rebellious Roaring ‘20s, the fall of Prohibition in the ‘30s, and then women running the workplace to replace men fighting overseas in the 1940s, the 1950s was filled with white picket fences and cookie-cutter expectations of gender roles. The Red Scare hunted for communists and the Lavender Scare pushed LGBT people deeper into the closet. In fact, Bentley started wearing women’s clothing again, claiming to have been “cured” of her lesbianism. And members of the homophile movement, as it was called, didn’t dare call themselves homosexuals because of the taboo of the word “sex.”

“People were really afraid to be overly queer in any way,” Woolner said. “During rallies, they required men to wear suits and the women to dress completely femme and wear dresses. Even the first gay activists were obsessed with wearing gender-normative clothing.”

Today, in an era where Roe v. Wade is no longer law, anti-LGBTQ legislation is passed along the country, and America is facing its racist past and present. As we look to the past, the lives of women like Rainey, Smith and Bentley can inspire us to remember how far we’ve come and the risks they took to simply be themselves.

“When we’re going through difficult moments, like the current moment, queer people and queer people of color have always fought these moments of oppression and still found joy,” Woolner said. “I think it’s really inspirational.”

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